SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Press the right touchscreen buttons on the latest generation of Mercedes’ mid-size SUV and it will literally dance up and down. It will bounce on its shock absorbers, unique for any production vehicle, just like a Cheech and Chong Lowrider.
This isn’t the German maker celebrating Canada’s legal cannabis. This is supposed to be a way to get the new GLE unstuck if you should find yourself in deep sand. In fact, you can press another touchscreen button and set each of the four individual shock absorbers for whatever length you like within a 12-cm range. This is supposed to be a way to get better grip if you should need it, perhaps helping to drive sideways on a hillside.
Even Mercedes’ own engineers know this is a bit of a gimmick, though. Sure, there’s the chance that somebody, somewhere, might one day need to get unstuck on the side of a sand dune. But for every one of those owners, thousands of others will just use it to impress the neighbours, or other road users at the traffic lights. That’s what I did down here, anyway.
It is impressive technology, made possible by the 48-volt electrical system now matched to the inline-6 engine of the GLE450. The air shocks are adjusted quickly by massive jolts of electricity. It’s a side benefit that the engineers discovered while creating the GLE’s mild-hybrid system, which is really intended to save fuel.
It’s expensive technology, too. There are no official prices yet for Canada, where we won’t see the new GLEs until summer 2019, but there is pricing for Europe. There, the “E-Active Body Control” feature costs about €7,000 (about $10,590 Canadian) as an option only available with the most expensive trim model, so expect to spend at least $100,000 for your similarly-equipped Benz. You should be able to buy a more basic GLE350, with an inline 4-cylinder engine, for not much more than the current $66,100.
The base level 2020 GLE won’t be that basic, though. It’s a large and luxurious vehicle that now has a wheelbase 80 mm longer than before; this allows for optional third-row seating if wanted, but also provides a little more leg room in the back and more cargo space. There’s 2,050 litres of space when the rear seats are folded flat.
It’s also packed with cutting-edge technology that answers needs you didn’t even know you had. It’s lighter, it’s safer, it’s quieter, it’s smoother (thanks to a new 9-speed automatic), and it’s pretty quick too, when needed. The 350 accelerates from zero-to-100 km/h in 7.1 seconds, and the 450 in just 5.7 seconds. That’s fast for a vehicle of this size, but it’s a safe bet that there will be more powerful AMG variations coming within another year or so.
In the meantime, the 1,991-cc turbocharged 4-cylinder creates 255 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, starting at just 1,800 rpm. The 2,999-cc turbocharged 6-cylinder creates 362 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, but if you step harder on the gas pedal, the 48-volt system produces “EQ Boost,” which adds another 21 hp and an astonishing 184 lb-ft of torque. That’s a lot.
Whatever your speed, the GLE is very comfortable inside, as you would expect from a Mercedes. The seats are supportive and spacious and, as well as having individual massage functions, can be set to adjust themselves every now and again in tiny, barely-perceptible increments. This is intended to relieve pressures on the occupant’s body to make longer drives more pleasant.
Mercedes says the GLE is “the latest and greatest” and includes features not even found in the luxurious S-Class. It steps up the semi-autonomous drive capability, making the SUV even more watchful through its camera and radar sensors when driving in traffic. It even has its own personal digital assistant: Just say, “Hey Mercedes” as you would summon Siri or Alexa, and you can ask the responding voice to open the windows or turn on the massage or pretty much whatever else can be adjusted through the exceptionally large central touch screen.
(In practice, the “Hey Mercedes” feature didn’t work especially well for either myself or my passenger. Its software will learn speech patterns and accents, however, so its understanding and response should improve considerably over time.)
Another clever feature is the “augmented reality” display on the Navigation screen. When you have a destination programmed into the system, and when you’re approaching a junction or turn, it will split the central Navigation screen to show the map to the left and a camera image from the front of the GLE to the right. On the camera image, it will overlay arrows and directions to help point the way.
But the best feature of all is, again, only possible with the expensive E-Active Body Control option; it’s called Curve. This is a separate drive mode, selectable among the Sport and Sport Plus and Comfort modes, which makes the GLE lean into a curve, to a maximum of 2.8 degrees. It’s not much but it’s quite noticeable. This isn’t a Sport feature but is intended to add comfort to the drive on a curving road, and relieve potential feelings of nausea.
Drive too quickly and the Curve feature will switch off and the suspension will adapt to the sportier drive, keeping everything flat and under control. Drive more relaxed, however, and it’s almost like a motorcycle. The degree of lean is considerably less but the principle is the same, and as one Mercedes executive quipped, the GLE will probably still lean more into corners than most of the Harley riders down here.
Model: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE350/GLE450
Price: n/a (2019 GLE is $66,100 - $82,000)
Engine: Turbocharged 1,991 cc inline-4 (GLE350), Turbocharged 2,999 cc inline-6 (GLE450)
Horsepower: 255 hp @ 5,800-6,100 rpm (GLE350); 362 hp @5,500-6,100 rpm, +21 hp EQ Boost (GLE450)
Torque: 273 lb-ft @ 1,800-4,000 rpm (GLE350), 369 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,500 rpm, +184 lb-ft EQ Boost (GLE450)
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Drivetrain: 4MATIC permanent AWD (GLE350), 4MATIC variable AWD (GLE450)
Suspension front: Independent double wishbone
Suspension rear: Independent multi-link
Length: 4,924 mm
Width: 1,999 mm (excluding mirrors) 2,157 mm (with mirrors)
Height: 1,794 mm (GLE350), 1,772 mm (GLE450)
Wheelbase: 2,995 mm
Acceleration (0-100 km/h): 7.1 seconds (GLE350 claimed), 5.7 seconds (GLE450 claimed)
Top speed: 210 km/h